I've been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now since a Patristic Roundup in which a post asked why Protestants wanted to quote the Church Fathers anyway. The gist of the comment is that Protestants aren't willing to listen to the clear testimony of the Fathers on the papacy (sic!), so why are they bothering?. I've been wanting to respond, but I decided that I also wanted to take my time to think out what I wanted to say. So, I'm going to slap on some Taize music (which is oddly appropriate) and get down to it.
To some degree, the surprise expressed by many Roman Catholics and Orthodox about the recent revival of Protestant interest in the Fathers is understandable. The Reformation slogan emphasizing sola scriptura as the basis of authority in Protestant theology did have the effect of stifling Protestant interest in the Fathers. Ultimately, in a Protestant theology, the Bible is perceived as the only necessary basis of authority in the Christian church, so it is less important to know what the Fathers have to say. In the more free church Protestant tradition, this emphasis on sola scriptura has led to a complete rejection of any writer after the Revelation of John as being unnecessary and, in fact, dangerous examples of the corrupted church which arose after the glories of the apostolic age. This has led to a kind of historical myopia and the attempt to create an ahistorical faith which most Roman Catholics and Orthodox associate with Protestantism in general.
Yet, it is interesting to note that most of the Reformers knew their way around the Fathers. Luther, Calvin and even Menno Simmons (representative of the early free church tradition) quoted the Fathers reasonably regularly. This makes sense because most of the early reformers (and many later ones) had a standard theological education through the universities which included a significant dose of patristics. Besides, in their controversies with their Roman Catholic opponents, they needed to challenge a particular view of the history of the Church, so the Fathers were part of that battleground.
Nor was this attention to patristics considered out of step with the larger principle of sola scriptura. The reality of this principle is not a rejection of anything outside the Bible (which is how it has often been read), but that anything outside of the Bible simply doesn't have the same authority. Sometimes those extra-biblical ideas are pernicious because they are in open conflict with what the Bible tells us, but, just as often, these extra-biblical ideas are simply speculative and, hence, not binding on the Church as a whole. This conditions Protestant views on the Fathers because it means that Protestants are always testing even the most revered Father against Scripture. This is contrast to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox tendency to emphasize continuity of apostolic teaching through the Fathers.
Yet, even granting this different attitude, I would argue that it is not inconsistent for Protestants to read the Fathers; only that they read them rather differently. What makes the Fathers so compelling to me is that, at their best, the Fathers, like the Reformers, are primarily concerned with what Scripture has to say. In Christian theology, it is an ever present temptation to allow secular learning to determine how we read the Bible in our attempt to make it relevant to the culture in which we find ourselves. In our own time, many theologians use their modernist or post-modernist education to reach our culture, sometimes to the point of allowing these philosophies to trump the Bible. In the patristic period, it was Greek philosophy (especially that of Plato) or rhetoric which served to trump the Bible. What makes the Fathers as good biblical exegetes as they are is that they resisted this temptation to greater or lesser extent. Even Origen, who by all accounts was heavily influenced by Platonism, could say that every word of Scripture had a meaning. Even when they indulged in allegory or typology, they took Scripture very seriously.
More important than this, the Fathers present a valuable alternative in how to write theology today. Unfortunately, for the last few hundred years, we've been too much in the habit of separating out our thinking from our praying, our theology from our spirituality. I honestly think that much of the unsound theology of the last centuries can be traced from this disconnect. The Fathers, in their very methods, refused to consider this division. Indeed, it never occurred to them. Theology was as much an expression of the Spirit as prayer or worship, if rightly guided. It is this desire to use the intelligence and discernment granted to us by God in a prayerful way which presents a rather different approach to the intellectualized, modernist faith which has characterized much Protestant theology in its various manifestations.
It isn't that Protestants need the Fathers more than anyone else does. All of us, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, need to hear their wisdom and their teaching. It just happens that it has taken us Protestants this long to remember that we need that help from these early Fathers. We need encouragement, not incredulity, to continue our studies in the Fathers. They are, after all, our Fathers too.